Azure is/was the product formerly known as Red Dog. It is more than just a Cloud OS. It is a hosting platform as well (ala Amazon EC2) with components that give it S3 and Simple DB capability. The Simple DB capability comes from SQL Server Data Services which has been renamed SQL Services or SQL Server Services. The name change comes from the added capability to support Reporting Services and Analysis Services. So the Data story of Azure looks to be much deeper than Simple DB as MS fills it out.
There is a rich service infrastructure built on top of it including Live Services and .NET Services (there are others). The .NET Services provides the ability to make your app Cloud-aware as well as integrate with your existing in house infrastructure. It is on that point that Azure really starts to set itself apart.
I will ignore the fact that MS historically has done a better job of making things easier than any other vendor (you are of course welcome to disagree). Because on that point alone I can see the average developer taking advantage of Cloud Computing more often now that it is almost a Visual Studio click away. The existing infrastructure investment is an fascinating twist on the Cloud Computing story that has been spun by everyone to date. Google App Engine says come to me and I will host you – you can use Amazon a little more piecemeal (use just S3, etc…), but the ability to authenticate a Cloud app against your existing identity infrastructure (and taking that and extrapolating that out to the other components of an app) is a huge innovation and makes Cloud Computing much more palatable especially for the enterprise.
Few enterprises were ever going to move all their data or capabilities out to the cloud – too many info security, reliability, and availability concerns. So the I will host everything models that exist today only really work for small business and startup areas and could (the market is so new we don’t know how things will truly evolve) cause problems as you grow and want to move stuff in house. Azure really changes that – it still has a very compelling story for the small business/startup, but with the integration with existing infrastructure it starts to work for enterprises as well.
An example of that is LDS General Conference. Twice a year the LDS Church hosts this conference and does quite a bit of online streaming (both video and audio). This has fairly significant infrastructure implications. What do we do – do we setup our infrastructure to scale to the peak demand (which we really could never do) or something close? The cost associated with that is just not worth it for the two times a year that the infrastructure is needed. Enter dynamic resource allocation from the cloud. Now we deploy our app to the cloud with hooks into our identity and storage infrastructure (or even push some of the storage to the cloud). Now we can dynamically add resources leveraging our existing app. Another area that was mentioned by a co-worker is the community development initiative that the Church is starting – hosting in the cloud with secure access to internal services provides some interesting food for thought.
I have registered for the Azure CTP and am looking forward to writing some real code with it to try out some of the claims and see where they deliver and where there is more vapor than substance.